Blocking people on Facebook comes back to haunt governor and county takes notice
ROCKVILLE – Members of the Montgomery County Council say they’re taking notice after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Gov. Larry Hogan.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, alleges that Hogan’s staff members deleted comments and blocked constituents from viewing his Facebook page.
“The highest purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of Americans to engage in political speech and to petition the government to address their concerns,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland in a statement.
The ACLU says Hogan’s social media staff deleted critical comments and blocked people from viewing the governor’s Facebook page and that this violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.
“The immediate access people have has changed so rapidly over the past few years it is hard to keep up with it,” said County Executive Ike Leggeett. “We need to come up with a uniform policy that that public can understand.”
Leggett said there should be different standards for public and private social media pages, saying the County’s official social media accounts are publically funded pages and are held to the same standards as the rest of County government. Leggett said he keeps a personal Facebook page, but said he does not block people or delete comments even though he said his private account is mainly for personal use.
As Leggett does, Council member Tom Hucker (D-5), said he generally does not block people or delete comments. Hucker said he could not remember an instance when he blocked someone or deleted a comment, but said he is not opposed to it completely if it crosses a line.
“Obviously if it’s racist I guess I might delete it,” Hucker said.
County Council member George Leventhal (D-at large), said he is acutely aware of this issue, going so far as to ask the County attorney for advice on the matter after a similar lawsuit was filed against President Donald J. Trump.
Leventhal said the lawsuit is something to think about for public officials, and said the County should have a policy or rule indicating what elected officials can and cannot do on their social media accounts. Leventhal said he could remember three or four times he blocked or deleted a comment from his Facebook page, saying he only does so in rare circumstances.
“I have blocked very, very few who were abusive,” Leventhal said.
Leventhal said one Facebook user on his Facebook page called a female state delegate the “c-word,” prompting Leventhal to delete the comment and later block the person from his Facebook account.
Social media is still relatively new ground for the first amendment, with lawsuits pending against Hogan, Trump and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, whom the ACLU of Kentucky sued for his management of his social media pages.
Council member Marc Elrich (D-at large) said he sometimes blocks or deletes comments when the person is “attacking.”
”It’s really hard to say, if it’s really incredibly attacking and inaccurate obviously not interested in engaging in the discussion,” Elrich said of his standard to delete comments or block people on his social media pages.
Council President Roger Berliner (D-1), said he sometimes blocks people if they attacking him personally.
“I try not to do that,” Berliner said of blocking people. “I get it you don’t like me but don’t be my friend.” The ACLU’s lawsuit against Hogan alleges his staff deleted a comment from Maryland resident Meredith Phillips, who criticized Hogan on his Facebook page for not taking a stance against Trump’s travel ban and policies on immigration. Phillips said her comment was deleted and she was blocked from viewing the governor’s Facebook page.
“That is the challenge,” Leventhal said. “Where is the line?”
Council member Hans Riemer (D-at large), who has both a public Facebook page and one that is personal, said finding the grounds on which politicians can block a constituent or delete a comment is a difficult question.
“When you get a nasty person on there that spews virtual it really has a chilling effect on the dialogue,” Riemer said. Like Leventhal, Riemer admitted to deleting comments that he believes crossed a line, but said what Hogan’s staff did is different than how he operates his social media pages, saying the Governor did not allow for appropriate disagreements.
“I think he crossed the line by a long way this was just simply a commenter who just disagreed with his policies, they weren’t disparaging, they weren’t vitriolic…they were simply disagreements,” said Riemer of the comments deleted from Hogan’s Facebook page.
State delegate James Gilchrist (D-17) has perhaps the only foolproof solution to the issues with first amendment rights and politicians’ social media accounts – don’t use them. Gilchrist, who has Facebook and Twitter accounts, said he rarely uses them and thus is not tempted to block anyone or delete any comments.
“I wouldn’t know how to,” Gilchrist said of deleting comments or blocking people from his social media pages. “ I’m sure I could figure it out,”
Council members Nancy Floreen (D-at large), Nancy Navarro (D-4), Craig Rice (D-2) and Sidney Katz did not respond to a request to comment for this story.